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GHOST TOWN

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He sees dead people, only this time it’s funny. That’s the premise of “Ghost Town,” which is more “Topper” than “The Sixth Sense” and amusing enough to give cultish TV favorite Ricky Gervais the bigscreen breakout role that until now had eluded him.

Gervais stars as Bertram Pincus, a New York City dentist who might be called people-averse. Sardonic and standoffish, he avoids human contact while brusquely dismissing everything and everyone he considers foolish, an adjective he’d apply fairly universally. When he undergoes a colonoscopy, however, he dies on the table for a few minutes and after being revived finds himself able to see the host of ghosts ambling around the city seeking to release themselves from the unfinished business that’s keeping them here among the living.

It’s a power he doesn’t want, because the spirits all pester him to help them. The most insistent is the slick, obnoxious salesman—and erstwhile adulterer—Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), recently carried off in a slapstick accident, who wants Bertram to break up the romance between his ex-wife Gwen (Tea Leoni), who happens to live in the same apartment building as our hero, and Richard (Billy Campbell), a human rights lawyer he considers a gold-digger. The dentist initially refuses, but finally succumbs. Naturally he falls for her himself. But as you can well imagine, the course of true love is not easy for a fellow like this, especially when Frank’s around to sabotage his efforts to woo Gwen.

It wouldn’t be fair to reveal too much about the plot turns, even if (apart from a sudden surprise near the end) they’re all fairly conventional. What sets “Ghost Town” apart isn’t the structure, it’s mostly the dialogue, especially that assigned to the cheerily dyspeptic Gervais, which evinces a tart wit that suggests that the star himself had a major hand in fashioning it, though he’s not credited. And he delivers it with a practiced aplomb that makes you laugh even when the material’s not top-tier.

But he’s not left to do the job alone. Leoni’s gangly charm is very winning—she can pull off even a bit with a gigantic mutt that Gwen adopts—and Kinnear is light on his feet as the not so dear nor very departed Frank. And there’s a great supporting cast that includes Aasif Mandvi as Bertram’s office partner and Dana Ivey and Alan Ruck as two of the other spirits who beg Pincus for help. Writer-director David Koepp has even fashioned a hilarious opening reel involving Bertram’s hospital visits (first for the operation, then later to discover what went on in the operating room), in which Kristen Wiig positively shines as his ditzy gastroenterologist but she’s ably abetted by Aaron Treit as the ultra-young anesthesiologist, Audrie Neenan as a surly admitting nurse and Michael-Leon Wooley as the burly hospital lawyer. Matters at Pincus’ office are equally secure in the able hands of Bridget Mahoney as a dippy receptionist and Claire Lautier as a talkative patient who turns out to have a connection with one of the spirits.

Koepp’s helming is equally sure-footed; he lets Gervais be Gervais, but at the same time maintains a crisp clip for the goings-on. The production is top-notch from the technical standpoint, too, with Fred Murphy’s cinematography making good use of the Big Apple locations and Sam Seig’s editing keeping things moving nimbly.

Inevitably, of course, “Ghost Town” goes soft in the last act, with Pincus finally learning that people need people and becoming a more caring individual. Even Kinnear’s ghostly character experiences a change of heart. But the picture never descends into bathos, as might easily have happened.

The result is a comedy that’s genuinely funny without being gross, and genuinely warm without becoming maudlin, a winning combination of sour and sweet that’s both tasty and satisfying. It may feature a lot of dead people, but “Ghost Town” has a lot of comic life.

MAN ON WIRE

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B+

After a brief detour into fiction film with the little-seen (and rather underappreciated) “The King” (2006), James Marsh returns to the documentary with this fascinating, exquisitely-made piece about Philippe Petit, tightrope-walker extraordinaire, who—with a little help from a small body of friends—succeeded in staging an illegal stroll between the tops of the twin towers of the still-in-process World Trade Center in 1974. Despite the fact that the outcome is part of the historical record, “Man on Wire” builds a remarkable degree of suspense in reconstructing how the trek more than 1300 feet above ground level was accomplished, and along the way it manages a good deal of humor and charm as well.

Marsh has been helped enormously by the fact that Petit and his cohorts filmed themselves planning and rehearsing their escapade extensively, and he’s been able to incorporate excerpts from that footage, as well as from televised news reports of the event from a quarter-century ago. But he also includes well-chosen commentary from recent interviews with Petit and those who helped him that allows them to look back on their experience and communicate the sense of excitement—and often fear—they felt at the time. And to the customary archival stills and newspaper headlines he adds atmospheric recreations to accompany the interviewees’ recollections—most notably scenes recounting how the crew managed to make their way to the top of the buildings and had to resort to extreme measures to avoid being caught by security guards.

Marsh is also fortunate in that the people he’s dealing with are such an engaging bunch. Petit, whose childhood daredevil inclinations and later public stunts (like traversing the space between the spires of Notre Dame cathedral or the towers of the Sydney Harbour Bridge) are dealt with in delicious detail, is an excitedly fluent memoirist and, more importantly, a pleasantly insouciant fellow whose obsessive quality avoids seeming like derangement (a restaged scene in a dentist’s office, dramatizing how he was first struck with “World Trade Center fever,” is striking). And his erstwhile girlfriend Annie Allix and long-time helpers Jean-Louis Blondeau and Jean-Francois Heckel are all likable as well, so much so that there’s a certain poignancy not only in the comparison of their present selves to the younger versions shown in the archival shots but in their comments about their post-walk relationships with Petit.

And there’s a charmingly roguish side to Petit’s American accomplices, a hastily-assembled trio that included a risk-loving “inside man” at the Center (Barry Greenhouse) and two rumpled seventies counter-cultural types, David (aka Donald) Foreman and Alan (aka Albert) Welner.

In assembling the material Marsh, who previously made the stunning “Wisconsin Death Trip,” adopts a style that may strike you as reminiscent of Errol Morris. He goes for a slightly off-putting mood and a sense of strangeness, even in the way he frames the interview subjects as he introduces them. As his use of the churning minimalist strains of Michael Nyman’s music calls to mind Morris’ dependence on Philip Glass’ similar scores. But also like Morris, Marsh manages to build an emotional connection between his subjects and his viewers without resorting to the personal essay form that places the filmmaker front and center in the fashion of a Michael Moore.

Documentary filmmaking, like tightrope-walking, is inherently a risky business, depending on choosing material engaging enough to hold a viewer’s interest and then constructing it so that it actually does so. In this instance Marsh shows real mastery in both respects. He emerges from his traversal as triumphantly as Petit did from his (though, to be honest, the result would have been less disastrous for him if he’d stumbled along the way).